As you may have heard by now, Marlins pitcher Alex Sanabia indisputably spat on a baseball last night directly after surrendering a home run to the Phillies’ Domonic Brown. David Brown of Big League Stew downplayed its ultimate effect on the game, but at least one Philly sportswriter took great umbrage at this infraction. (Bonus points to the commenter on that last link who said, “Maybe our team should try it? The bullpen in particular.”)
Sanabia broke MLB rule 8.02—that much cannot be denied. But I think people really need to adjust their expectations when they see someone applying a questionable substance to a baseball. There are two fundamentally different things a pitcher does to alter the way he throws the ball using a foreign substance. These two instances should not be conflated.
The first is the true “spitter,” a pitch loaded up with something to give the pitcher less control, so that the ball moves in some unusual fashion to confuse a hitter. That can be done, in theory, by putting a viscous material on the ball, or by scuffing the hide in order to disturb normal rotation. Known cases of this are extremely rare these days. Umpires and opposing players can tell if a ball is moving unnaturally or if the ball’s texture isn’t right, and constant TV coverage makes it easier for guys to get caught.
The second, more common violation is the pitcher’s version of applying pine tar to a bat—where the attempt is to gain more control over the ball. A pitcher uses something—often sunscreen or pine tar itself—to improve his grip. That’s what Kenny Rogers, Joel Peralta, and perhaps Clay Buchholz were trying to achieve. The ball doesn’t move unnaturally, but it may move more consistently if the pitcher feels more comfortable with his grip and release.
If Sanabia’s intent really was to use his saliva as a pitching aid, and not as some measure of venting frustration after a home run, then he almost certainly falls into the second camp. He spent a good deal of time vigorously rubbing the baseball down to the point that it was probably not very different from any other on the field by the time he threw his next pitch. That next pitch was a fastball about a foot outside to Delmon Young, and its spin deflection was quite unremarkable. Here’s a spin graph of all the four-seamers Sanabia threw last night, as tagged by Harry Pavlidis. The pitch to Young is highlighted in blue.
Sanabia did not get a large amount of swinging strikes after Brown’s home run, which would have been a good sign that batters were being fooled by unusual movement. He got whiffs on two out of six swings on his changeup, two of 11 on his sinker, four of 14 on his slider, and zero of eight on his fastball. That’s eight of 39, or 20.5 percent. His overall rate this year is 22.0 percent.
There’s no doubt that Alex Sanabia broke the rules and could easily find himself punished by Major League Baseball. But any competitive advantage he gained during the game was negligible, and it’s not an explanation for why the Phillies lost to a lousy team.